Every once in a great while you hear a question that changes how you look at things, how you approach strategy, design, marketing, innovation, and maybe even your own life. Here’s one that’s rocking my thinking:
“Who do you want your customers* to become?”
In his book of the same name, MIT’s Michael Schrage says, “Successful innovators don’t just ask customers and clients to do something different, they ask them to become something different.”
Because customers are always changing, strategy shouldn’t focus on existing customers but on who tomorrow’s customers will — and should — be, and then designing our offers to help the customer become that person. To realize new attitudes, behaviors, values, and habits.
- Facebook asks users to become more open about sharing their personal information.
- Disney helps little girls become princesses. Amazon has asked people to become different kinds of shoppers.
- Google has asked us to become impatient searchers who demand speed. Social business is asking us to share and tap into our collective intelligence.
- My Rebels at Work movement is asking people to stand up and lead change within organizations.
- Uber is asking us to demand lower costs and easier booking for chauffeured transportation.
- The Khan Academy is asking us to rethink teachers as tutors and coaches.
- Bobbi Brown is asking us to keep our make-up simple and easy.
- FedEx is asking small businesses to consider the world their market, not just their local countries.
Once you articulate The Ask, you can more clearly see what you need to do to help your customers become someone different. This becomes the strategy discussion.
Schrage notes that few company vision statements address the customer. Most are about the company and provide little direction on how to add value to the customer. “A customer vision statement, explicitly identifies the qualities and attributes the organization aspires to create in its customers.”
* Note that you could insert client, boss, donor, citizens, association members and other types of customers into this question. How do you want to transform that group of people? How will they benefit? Do the benefits offset what they’ll need to do to transform?
Schrage’s short and provocative ebook is available on Amazon for $3.03. It’s a must-read, and its question is a must-ask.
What advice do you wish someone had given you earlier in your career? “Don’t climb, lift,” said veteran analyst John Bordeaux in his Rebel at Work story.
Don’t climb. Lift.
There’s much to take away from this advice. One question might be, “What allows us to lift?”
Optimism lifts. Skepticism requires climbing.
I remember my first week on a new job talking with a team of discouraged people, demoralized because their client was unhappy with their work.
“Let’s try to show the client how much we’re accomplishing. How about we change the monthly report formats and list everything that we’ve accomplished each month in bullet points, right at the top,” I suggested.
“Yeah, right,” said Cindy. “What happens if we don’t achieve those kinds of results?”
Though I had only been at the agency a couple of weeks I was optimistic that we’d be able to achieve more, especially if we changed a few approaches to the work.
“If we do these two things every month I really think we’ll be able to report some results that will make the client happy. Let’s just try it for a couple of months and see what happens.”
This optimism accomplished two things. The team didn’t resist my new ideas, although they were contrary to the way most teams did things at the company, and the team did in fact achieve results that surprised them and the client. Someone genuinely believing they could succeed lifted the team, and they achieved more than they thought possible.
Optimism has a powerful influence on people. It helps us to take a chance, do something new, invest in an alternative approach.
This is not about chirpy, fake platitudes and those motivational “Dare to do the Impossible” posters posted on bulletin boards near the lunchroom. I’m talking about adopting a mindset focused more on possibilities than problems.
In a world where the voices of the skeptics and naysayers seem to shout the loudest, we optimists quietly and persistently keep going. We do so because we believe that our idea is possible. We see the reasons why it can work and the value it will provide. We follow our passions, know and use our strengths, are open-minded and open-hearted, and we often reflect about what is working and where we can do things differently.
Sure we fall back and get frustrated, too. Big time. But it’s how you respond to setbacks that influences how likely you’ll be able to find the energy to get up and continue on.
How optimistic people achieve more:
- Attract supporters. People prefer to be part of teams that believe what they’re doing is achievable. They also get energy from being around optimistic people, so they like to be on your team.
- Get the ear of more people. Even if people don’t agree with our ideas, they are more willing to listen to us and have a conversation.
- Self-motivate themselves. When you believe something is possible it motivates you to stay with the idea, keep gathering information, ask questions, get input, think how to improve on it. Doing this makes the idea even more likely to succeed.
- Minimize stress: Persistence and determination are easier to sustain when you have an optimistic attitude. Make no mistake that being a rebel at work is stressful, but a positive perspective can make it less exhausting. Optimists ride the possibility wave to keep motivated. Pessimists tackle persistence and determination by pushing a rock up hill. People want to surf with you. Pushing heavy objects up steep hills, not so much.
- Trigger contagiousness. Positive ideas get talked about. Ones that connect with rational and emotional desires hop on the word of mouth train. “Here’s a way we can do our work faster, easier, safer, with more fun, and with much fewer headaches.” Sign me up to help.
- Look inviting. People who are negative show creases on their foreheads, furrows between their eyes, squint marks by the sides of their eyes, bags under their eyes from lack of sleep. I admit this is a superficial benefit of optimism, but looking healthy and restful also attracts more people to you than when you look haggard. Think about it. Who do you like to chat with around the proverbial water cooler? A positive, healthy looking person or someone who is stern, overly serious and coiled like they might strike if you say the wrong thing?
The science of positivity and optimism
The science backs up these views on optimism.
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a scholar in social and positive psychology and author of Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life, has found that positivity opens our minds and hearts, making us more receptive to ideas and making us more creative. Positive emotions help us to discover new skills, new knowledge, and new ways of doing things – and to recover more quickly when things don’t go well.
She suggests that we try to achieve at least a 3:1 positivity ration.
“This means that for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience you endure, you experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift you,” Dr. Fredrickson explains. “This is the ratio that I’ve found to be the tipping point, predicting whether people languish or flourish.”
You can’t force optimism and positivity, using insincere, gratuitous gestures and words. That will backfire. You have to really feel it and mean it. No platitudes and smiley faces. People see right through that.
In fact, the subtle difference between positivity and optimism is action, according to Elaine Fox, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England and author of a book on the science of optimism, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain.”
“Optimism is not so much about feeling happy, nor necessarily a belief that everything will be fine, but about how we respond when times get tough,” she writes. “Optimists tend to keep going, even when it seems as if the whole world is against them.”
- Use new words. If something doesn’t pan out, refrain from calling it a “failure,” or worse, saying “I failed.” Sometimes things don’t work out. The idea may be too risky for the organization. You piloted a concept and the data indicated it wouldn’t achieve enough of the right results. The thinking was sound but the investment costs were far greater than the likely returns. You get the picture. If we use failure words, we label ourselves and our efforts in ways that diminish the likelihood of trying again, or of people supporting us again. We rebels are idea people. Some ideas will work brilliantly, others not so. We’re not failures. We’re thinkers and experimenters.
- Hang out with optimistic people. Not the Pollyannas but realists who see what’s possible. Creators vs. complainers. Avoid the Debbie Downers and Negative Nicks wherever possible. Including in your personal life.
- Picture it. Envision how people will feel and be better off if you’re successful. Keep this image clear. Present this image when taking about your project so people are reminded of the big picture benefit. Ask an artsy friend to make an image of it, for you and for you to use when you have to make a presentation about the idea. Or find a metaphorical image that inspires you. (I like the rising moon image in this post.)
- Try to work on things that interest you. This isn’t always possible but when we’re determined it’s interesting to see how we can shift assignments and responsibilities, especially when we can demonstrate why the work we WANT to work on is important to the organization.
- Tune out. Though we rebels tend to have insatiable curiosities, there are some things we should stay away from. Like people who over use fear and anxiety to get attention and manipulate feelings. Hysteria clouds perspective and balanced thinking.
- Do one scary thing a year. Something that interests you but you find intimidating, as in “I don’t think I could ever do that.” Or, “I’d be way out of my league if I took that course.” “What would I say if I agreed to give a speech like that in front of those people?” The thing about doing one scary thing a year is that it builds up your confidence. You will almost always find that you do better than you think you could, or you were welcomed warmly by people you don’t usually associate with. The benefit? Your optimism increases. You believe that more is possible.
- Turn to learning: When you hit roadblocks and frustrations turn to learning and questioning. “What could I learn that would help me figure this out? What’s beneath what’s going on here?” Questions open you back up to possibilities and restore optimism. Don’t stay parked in dead ends.
Many people think disagreeing means that we’re being unkind and insensitive. Or impolite. (Egads!) “Let’s take this off line,” they say.
What’s unkind to me is pretending an uncomfortable issue doesn’t exist when everyone knows it does. There’s a tension at work when this happens. Nothing is moving forward, corporate inertia is draining us, and we’re becoming ever more skeptical about the cry for greater collaboration.
Furthermore, the longer an issue is ignored, the more frustrated and demoralized people become. Even worse, trust and respect among people erode. And when that’s gone, the organization gets crippled.
“When someone comes to a meeting and states an opinion or makes a suggestion that his teammates don’t agree with, those teammates have a choice: they can explain their disagreement and work through it, or they can withhold their opinion and allow themselves to quietly lose respect for their colleague,” says organizational health consultant Patrick Lencioni in his excellent book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.
“When team members get to choose the latter option — withholding their opinions — frustration inevitably sets in. Essentially, they’re deciding to tolerate their colleague rather than trust him.”
More than most, we rebels see healthy dissent as a team sport, where everyone with something to contribute is expected to contribute. If you don’t speak up your silence can be interpreted to mean that you agree and have nothing to add.
We view dissent as a way of together getting stronger, like a team preparing to hike Mt. Everest. All the potential issues are honestly discussed and worked through to increase the likelihood of a successful expedition where no one gets hurt. We’re fed by the positive energy around these conversations. We appreciate and value what our colleagues have to say.
We also listen fiercely and ask frank questions. It’s about inquiry vs. preaching. But most organizations practice advocacy instead of inquiry in their conversations, say Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea Mayfield in The Thin Book of Naming Elephants.
“Advocacy is a win-lose form of communication…each person is trying to convince the other that he or she is right and there is only one right answer. Dialogue assumes people see the world differently…each person assumes he or she can learn something new from others.”
Practices for inviting healthy conflict
So what can you do to move from advocacy to inquiry? To help foster healthy dissent vs. angry debates? Here are some suggestions.
- Establish agreements: set some guiding principles at the start of a meeting and keep them posted on the wall as a reminder. If someone starts to violate an agreement, bring everyone’s attention back to the list on the wall. Here are some guiding principles that I have found helpful:
- Judge ideas, not people.
- Focus on solutions and ways forward; stay away from drama and problems.
- Observations are more useful than opinions.
- Let each person complete their thought; avoid interrupting.
- Ask questions that illuminate, not interrogate.
- Ask questions that are brief and to the point without adding background considerations and rationale, which make the question into a speech
- Respect other people’s truths.
- If you want your views to be heard speak now. Not later in backroom side conversations.
- Set the tone: Open the meeting by going around the room and asking everyone to respond to a soft but relevant question where there is no right or wrong answer. No one comments on what a person says, just respectfully listens. This helps to put people at ease, build personal connections, make sure everyone’s voice is heard, and get comfortable with listening. I recently asked a group about the most creative thing they had done outside of work in the past month. The answers were hilarious, and that laughter set a relaxing, collegial tone to dig into important issues.
- Set up what’s at risk: Frame the conversation by succinctly stating what’s at risk and why it’s so important to debate the issue and get everyone’s views. This focuses the conversation and reminds people why it’s worth their time and honest input.
- Make sure you have enough time. Issues worthy of inquiry and debate usually require more than the typical one hour time allotment. One hour meetings are good for updates and touching base. Strategic conversations where we value everyone’s involvement need more like three hours, maybe a even a day or more.
- Facilitate or use a facilitator. Effective facilitators carefully listen, guide, inject good questions to open up new conversation veins, move people off dead horses, prevent any one person from hogging the conversation, help the group to recover if someone has said something hurtful, and adhere to the meeting agreements. If you are facilitating, know that it will be difficult to participate. As a participant you’re focused on the ideas not the meta conversation. Understand what role you’ll be playing, participant or facilitator.
- Ask the wind-down question. It usually gets to the real issues: About 30 minutes before the meeting is to end ask, “What hasn’t been said that should? Is there something you feel we’ve been avoiding? If we never talked about this issue again, would you feel satisfied that we honestly examined all the important aspects of it? If not, what needs to be said?” Inevitably someone speaks up and speaks the truth and the real conversation starts.
- Close with insights: After summarizing highlights and next steps, ask everyone to briefly respond to a closing question, which further respects views and makes sure voices are heard. Possible closers might be:
- How did your thinking on this issue shift?
- What one thing did you find most useful from the discussion?
- What was the high point of this discussion for you?
For more helpful ideas on facilitating healthy dissent, read Carmen’s post, “Advice for Managers: Do You Make It Easy for People to Disagree with You?”
The two-hour session devolved into conversations about personalities, systems limitations, approval hold-ups by the legal department, problems uncovered by market research, frustrations with the sales strategy, and a concluding “why do we keep talking about the same problems over and over?”
People left frustrated, exhausted and angry. Not much of significance had been accomplished. Such a waste of time.
And no wonder. When conversations get pulled into the emotion of drama and problems our primitive brain takes over and shuts off our higher order intelligence, says Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence. In other words, drama begets drama instead of any useful ideas on how to accomplish what’s at stake.
Interestingly I was in a recent academic meeting focused on innovation and creativity that also fell into the rat hole of drama, problems, details, and more drama. Guess how creative and innovative that two hours turned out to be?
Quiet Leadership author David Rock suggests two practices that I find helpful. Agree in meetings on where to focus the conversation: vision, planning, detail, problem and drama. Wherever possible, keep all conversations focused on vision and planning. In this positive, low-anxiety mental state we’re better able to think fully and creatively
When you have to discuss detail, focus on one detail in a 10 minute chunk. After 10 minutes, we lose our ability to concentrate on that topic, says John Medina, author of Brain Rules. “You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done to regain attention and restart the clock.”
I see another opportunity in staying focused on the bigger picture: it is in this positive frame of mind that we’re more able to disagree in productive, creative ways. Because our minds are calmer and we’re focused on shared goals in this mindset, we’re able to intellectually consider and discuss alternatives. There’s a higher order of thinking that’s possible during this mental state, say the neuroscientists.
Once we get into drama and pointing fingers at people and problems, dissent becomes dangerous and unhelpful.
Not to mention that there’s no emotional energy left for compassion or creativity.
I’ve taken a new professional vow: keep the meetings I’m in focused on solutions, and out of drama and problems. Want to join me?
Here’s how I got the group unstuck. It might be helpful to you when someone uses the common “Yes, but we don’t have the money/people/time” refrain about new approaches or ideas.
“You all are stretched to the limit,” I said. “And let’s remember that we find resources for priorities that are important to us. Things that aren’t so important don’t get funded. Maybe the real conversation here is that this program just isn’t that important to the company right now. Maybe you should together decide it’s not important, and stop frustrating yourselves by bringing it up at every strategy session.”
Radio silence. (And one executive quietly laughing in acknowledgement.)
The group decided that the issue is important and they figured out a way to get a basic approach working within the next few weeks. It’s not the Cadillac or Four Seasons version, but it begins to provide value and address a real need in the company.
When someone throws objections, get to the real issue and get out of the endlessly frustrating and unproductive ” why not” objections.
I knew little about coaching and was curious. This Ivy League university conference seemed like a good place to learn.
The guru started interrogating the woman on the stage with him, cutting her off before she could fully answer his questions, barking that she wasn’t answering his questions, and flippantly responding, “Really? Really?” when she tried to answer the questions.
I couldn’t believe the meanness of it all. So I raised my hand.
Mr. Guru took questions from two people before acknowledging me, both people praising his technique and asking softball questions like, “Do you use the same approach in phone sessions as in-person sessions?”
I stood up and simply said, “ How was that helpful? It seemed intimidating and mean to me.”
Silence grabbed the giant hotel ballroom. Even Mr. Guru was at a loss for words.
He glared at me and gave some innocuous response, adding that he’d be happy to speak to me privately later. He then turned to the sea of people and said that this woman, meaning me, was in error. Because we were so far from the stage we couldn’t observe his body language correctly. If we could see better, we would know that the “young lady’s” comments were off base. (Calling a middle-aged woman a young lady also made my skin crawl; it seemed so condescending.)
There was a break after the role-modeling session. As I made my way to the snacks table people came up to me and said, “Thanks for saying what you did. I felt the same way.” Conversations ensued and I would guess that’s where some real learning happened.
It’s hard to speak up, especially in a huge crowd, especially when you’re not a “subject matter expert” or you’re early in your career or new with an organization.
What if my questions are dumb, we think.
What if they’re not? What if no one speaks up challenging people who treat others meanly, who use professional practices that seem ill founded, who closes down learning and thinking by being smug and sure?
Being an effective maverick and rebel in the workplace doesn’t mean that you need to reinvent your company, create new business models or solve other major challenges.
Sometimes we just need to be the people who are willing to raise our hands and put words to what we and others are feeling.
If not we, who?
People who change the world in small and big ways, rebel FOR change they believe will make a difference. They are also keen observers and want to work with others to make the possible real. Over the holidays I had the luxurious pleasure of re-reading author and leadership activist Margaret Wheatley’s book Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future.
Here’s an excerpt that captures the behaviors of those with a desire to lead.
Turning to one another
Ask “what’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking. Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
- Talk to people you know.
- Talk to people you don’t know.
- Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
- Expect to be surprised.
- Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
- Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
- Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness. Stay together.
Executives can lay out a goal and what they think needs to be done to achieve that goal. People then (hopefully) follow orders and business moves ahead.
This traditional leadership approach cultivates a follower culture. Yet, follower cultures don’t cultivate creativity, innovation, transparency or engagement.
Barbara DeBuono, CEO of Orbis International, takes a different approach, one that more and more highly-effective leaders are adopting: she poses important, provocative questions and then facilitates and guides meaningful conversations. Conversations where people figure out together the ways they believe the organization can best achieve the goal.
She explained the approach to The New York times’ Adam Bryant in the “Corner Office” column:
I asked a group of people at Orbis, “Do you think we’re a high performing organization?” and then I shut my mouth. I wanted them to give me the answer.
I also asked them, “What do you think a high performing organization would look like?”
The next question I ask: “Do you want to be one? And if so, what is a high performing organization? Let’s discuss what it is.
Barbara explains that taking this kind of honest, open conversational approach gets people to drop their defenses, opens up honest conversations about difficult issues, and creates a new energy level among people. “I definitely see a spring in people’s step,” she remarked.
I’m noticing that those who lead effectively:
- Ask important questions
- Make it safe for people to have real conversations about the issues
- Listen intently
- Trust that the group will discover how to move things forward
The company invested heavily — creating innovative games and technologies to help people understand the business, bringing in big ticket leadership speakers, and investing in expensive development methodologies by some of the world’s best-known leadership gurus.
When asked what they found most valuable about the program, these high-potential leaders said they loved having unstructured time to talk with one another. Despite the millions invested in the program, what they found most helpful is something that costs little.
Having time to talk with one another was the best part of the program. We had some great conversations during those unstructured 20-minute walks and over meals. We hardly ever get the chance to talk with peers from other divisions. And we hardly ever get the chance to talk without a formal agenda. Getting to know one another — and know we can talk with one another about issues — was invaluable.
We’re under more pressure than ever before in business, with seemingly every minute booked in meetings and conference calls.
Yet carving out occasional, unhurried time to think out loud with colleagues we rarely spend time with — without an agenda or dreaded PowerPoint presentations – may be one of the best uses of our most limited resources: time.